What’s in a name? Why does it matter?

Names matter. Success or failure of an idea, product or genre can hinge on its name. Two weeks ago, I suggested that the success of a monumental change in the way we produce meat could hinge on how it is named. The power of a name in today’s society has major implications for how a person, place or thing is perceived. A common name and a legal name might not be the same, but each can influence acceptance or rejection of that idea, product or genre. We learn in Romeo and Juliet “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but would it be accepted as well in the marketplace if it were called a thornweed? This week I explore the effects of a name on the following:

Clean meat or cultured meat or lab-grown meat? Of all the possible options, clean meat seems to be the most likely name to be successful. Paul Shapiro describes the merits of the term and how it was derived in Clean Meat. To achieve his goal of cultured meat largely replacing meat from animals, this term will need to achieve legal status and be accepted at the level that organic is currently accepted. Cultured meat is more technically accurate despite clean meat’s marketing advantage. Lab-grown meat is probably not one that will gain product acceptance. Based on the response this site has received on clean or cultured meat, there does not seem to be that much interest in the subject, at least among regular readers of this blog.

Real food or foodlike substance? Michael Pollan has popularized this distinction, but who is he to tell us what food is real and what is fake? In 100 Days of Real Food, we learn that any white bread, any packaged food with more than five ingredients, mixed drinks, meats produced outside of the local environs, and any homemade dessert sweetened with white sugar are NOT real. My grandmother would think such guidelines were nuts. It seems like an agenda is at work here.

Processed or ultraprocessed food? When Jeff Foxworthy heard at a NASCAR race that a car had “done flat blowed up,” he asked what was the difference between “done flat blowed up” and “blowed up.” After a long pause he was told “I’m not quite sure, but I think done flat blowed up is worse!” In reading the descriptions of processed foods and ultraprocessed foods, ultraprocessed sounds much worse. Processed food tends to be a vague term that is rarely defined (see some definitions here), but it has become a short-hand for all the food that we eat that is unhealthy. By remaining deliberately vague, it can be demonized by the writer or speaker without giving personal offense to anyone in the audience.


Ultraprocessed or just processed?

Ultraprocessed food is clearly defined and is used in the scientific literature to study health effects (1-3). Very few traditionally processed items escape the designation of ultraprocessing. Mass-produced breads and buns, ice cream, fruit drinks, and any food or beverage designed to meet specific nutritional or health needs, for example, are considered to be ultraprocessed. White sugar and iodized salt are considered processed culinary ingredients and are approved for use in home or restaurant cooking. Michael Pollan’s rule #6 “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients” is reasonably accurate at defining ultraprocessed food and easier to remember. See Food Rules.

Canola oil or rapeseed oil? Imagine being in marketing department of a major oil manufacturer and being assigned to head up the rapeseed oil account. The Canadian government found that rapeseed oil had a fine portfolio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids but also contained erucic acid which contributed to off flavors and potential unfavorable health effects. After a major project to reduce erucic acid and enhance the beneficial fats, the Canadians renamed the oilseed to better market the refined oil. It seems to be working out reasonably well. Not so sure if they would have been as successful if they kept the name rapeseed oil.

Plant-based milk or plant-based protein extracts? Milk has a healthy image because it is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium. Milk also has an unhealthy image because it comes from animals and is high in fat. Even if most or all of the fat is removed, it still has the animal-based stigma in a plant-based-diet environment. Enter milks made from soy, almond, coconut, and rice. They are white, do not come from animals, and have all the nutritional benefits of dairy products without the fat. Oh wait, they don’t necessarily have all the nutritional benefits of real milk, and they do have fat. Milk from cows or goats or yaks is more natural than the ultraprocessed products which are essentially protein extracts of plant materials. At least they look like the real thing and do not come from animals. Would Silk sell as well if it had to be called “imitation milk from soybeans” or “soybean milk substitute” or “soybean protein extract?”

Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup? Corn syrup is made by treating corn starch with a dilute acid or by enzyme hydrolysis. The problem with corn syrup is that it is not sweet as it is composed of glucose (or dextrose), a not-so-sweet sugar. To sweeten it up requires a simple transformation with another enzyme to convert some of the glucose to fructose, a sweeter sugar. There are two versions of high fructose corn syrup—42% fructose and 55% fructose. High fructose corn syrup is preferred as an ingredient because it is less expensive than table sugar which is sucrose—50% glucose and 50% fructose. High fructose corn syrup is also sweeter than sucrose and less likely to crystallize in a product. To overcome the crystallization problem with sucrose, it can be turned into invert sugar by treatment with another enzyme, invertase, which breaks down the sucrose into its fructose and glucose components. High fructose corn syrup is high on the list of the most unwanted chemical ingredients in foods or badditives!

Manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup would like to change its name back to corn syrup or some other innocuous sounding name, but it is too late for such a move. Is high fructose corn syrup natural? Not really. By the same token, is corn syrup natural or invert sugar natural? Not really. Can food manufacturers get away with calling corn syrup and invert sugar natural? Yes, but they can’t get away with calling high fructose corn syrup natural. Oh, how the its manufacturers wish that the original name was something else!

baking powder

Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate or alum? Baking soda is a common ingredient that many cooks find useful and do not recognize it as the combination of two or more chemical ingredients. It must have a carbon-dioxide generator to produce chemical leavening and an acid to activate the generator when water is added. Sodium bicarbonate is frequently used to generate the carbon dioxide. Alum is short for hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate, which functions as an activating acid. Sodium bicarbonate is obviously a chemical and thus not a candidate for a clean label. Baking soda is not thought of as a chemical and thus could find its way onto a clean label. Alum has been suspect for over a century, and may or may not grace a clean label. For more detail on the history of the use of these three terms see Baking Powder Wars.

Caffeine or trimethylpurine dione or trimethylxanthine? Caffeine is a component of many beverages that most of us rely on daily to keep alert. It is familiar and nonthreatening, although some of us prefer to decrease our consumption by consuming the decaffeinated versions. Trimethylpurine dione or trimethylxanthine are two chemical names for caffeine. If caffeine were introduced into the food and beverage market today, it would probably be required to go by one of these two chemical names. Would that which we call caffeine be as accepted under any other name? I think not.

Chemical or molecule or compound? We live in a society where all chemicals are considered bad, particularly if hard to pronounce. We can ignore the chemical nature of compounds with nonthreatening names like water or caffeine or even alcohol but not monosodium glutamate or high fructose corn syrup. Miracle chemicals that induce positive changes like nitric oxide or raspberry ketone are generally referred to as molecules and not chemicals even though in this context the words mean the same thing. A compound seems to be considered more neutral. Anyone marketing a new chemical would be advised to call it a molecule. We view molecular gastronomy positively, but would we feel the same way about chemical gastronomy?

Obese or with obesity? Finally, it was pointed out recently that we should not call anyone obese. The more correct term is someone “with obesity.” Although I tend to be turned off by overly politically correct speech, I can see the merit of such terminology. The former is a label that tends to be degrading, while the latter is more descriptive of a condition within a certain unit of time. In a similar vein, describing someone who is currently experiencing homelessness is more appropriate than calling a person homeless.

Bottom line. Names matter. Names are loaded with preconceptions that can enhance or discredit a product, brand or idea. Carefully choosing a good name and then creating a context for that name are essential for success. Having someone else select the name or create a negative context can lead to failure.

Next week: Top 10 sources of calories in the American diet


(1) Martins, A.M., Bello Moreira, A.S., Canella, D.S., Rodrigues, J., Santin, F., Wanderley, B., Lourenco, R.A. and Avesani, C.M. 2017. Elderly patients on hemodialysis have worse dietary quality and higher consumption of ultraprocessed food than elderly without chronic kidney disease. Nutrition 41:73-79.

(2) Nardocci, M., Leclerc, B.S., Louzada, M.L., Monteiro, C.A., Batal, M. and Moubarac, J.C., 2019. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health  110 (1):4-14.

(3) Schnabel, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Alles, B., Touvier, M., Srour, B., Hercberg, S., Buscail, C., and Julia, C. 2019. Association between ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of mortality among middle-aged adults in France. JAMA Internal Medicine 173 [JAMA Internal Med doi:10.100/jamainternmed.2018.7289]




3 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Why does it matter?

  1. I never thought about caffeine that way – whether it would be acceptable to the public if it were discovered today. That’s an interesting philosophical question. Great post as always.


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